The debate that has followed the decision of six writers to withdraw from hosting tables at the PEN Literary Gala and Free Expression Awards, in protest of the decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo, has been caught up in the crudest sort of defensive polemics. Over and over again, in every forum one could name, the “pro-Charlie” camp has been described as a patriotic horde of binary thinkers. As Francine Prose—one of the six writers who withdrew—put it in The Guardian, “the idea that one is either ‘for us or against us’ in such matters . . . precludes rational and careful thinking.” To be sure, the political sloganeering in which Charlie Hebdo has been used—for example, to brand “anti-Charlie” writers as supporters of terrorism—is a shame. But a further binary has developed out of the original: rather than responding to the more nuanced or knowledgeable positions on offer, writers on all sides have assumed the worst about anyone taking a position different from theirs. “We are dismayed by people who simplify our position,” the thinking seems to go, “so we’ll conveniently also dismiss the people who don’t.”
So what are the most common points of argument from commentators, like myself, who don’t believe that Michael Ondaatje supports al-Qaeda? First, the PEN debate has almost completely displaced the issue of national versus international scale, in particular, onto the more mendacious one of an abstract notion of context. Instead of asking what the difference is in interpreting Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in France versus in America, the PEN objectors ask whether national context should matter in determining whether to read something as racist. All of the writers who made public statements expressed misgivings about the fact that Charlie Hebdo had insensitively depicted the Prophet Muhammad, with Rachel Kushner bemoaning the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and “kind of forced secular view,” and Teju Cole noting that it wasn’t “a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular.” Cole’s reason, before he declined further comment, was that the Charlie Hebdo attack and controversy was about race, not religion, comparing it unfavorably to the Rushdie affair on this point. This reframing of the issue—which not only shifts from religion to race, but from race in a national frame to race in a “global” context—stacks the deck: it means that the person who “sides” with France is boxed into relativizing racism, or questioning the problem’s universal recognizability, and thus importance. My problem with the PEN objectors isn’t that they’re hypocritical, sanctimonious, or illogical, though some of them are. It’s that they are provincial in more ways than one, and that the starting point of their argument assumes the end result (racism) of ours.
The provincialism is obvious at the level of monolingualism: many readers judge Charlie Hebdo without knowing the language of the cartoons, or even assuming that language matters. One NYU faculty member, for example, publicly noted that it was “ironic” for people to look to text to explain an image. Crucially, though, it also operates in the form of a weak cosmopolitanism. People who exist in a world in which nowhere and everywhere is home—types that the anti-PEN signatory Taiye Selasi narrativizes in her debut novel Ghana Must Go, widely praised for its movement among African, European, and North American cities—are accustomed to thinking that everything essential can be translated or transposed. Within this network, mainly conducted through English, a book remains a book, and a cartoon a cartoon, regardless of where it may travel. Sure, it may pick up some additional quirks here and there, but cosmopolitans don’t seek universal truths primarily in location. To stick with the instructive example of Selasi, the logic of fluid translation also extends to mobile people. To anyone who has followed the debate about African identity that she kicked off with her 2005 essay “Bye-Bye Babar” in The Lip, this will all sound familiar. “We are Afropolitans,” she wrote there, “not citizens, but Africans of the world.” What this stance means in the context of Charlie Hebdo is that anyone, anywhere, of the right sort of mind, is able to make a sound claim to understanding its cartoons.
But this is of course wrong, and self-reinforcing. A Muslim writer in South Africa does not, by default, know more about whether Charlie Hebdo is racist than a black writer in France. (I am thinking in particular of the Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou’s strong support, in French, for the magazine.) And while perhaps even this point could be argued either way, what is certainly not contentious is the idea that a marginalized voice in America, or Australia, or even England, knows less about whether Charlie Hebdo is racist than a marginalized voice in France. (On this point, I am thinking of the former head of the organization SOS Racisme’s disgust at the “incredible” intellectual dishonesty of this response to a publication he counts as an ally and friend.)
The question is whether it is possible to determine Charlie’s ideological credentials outside of a very elective affinity with other people’s feelings. The only answer, from where I stand, is a resounding yes: we can indeed determine Charlie’s ideological credentials, and they are radical beyond doubt. This is not what is in fact being debated, because not a single objection to that conclusion withstands real scrutiny, least of all the contention that Charlie’s illustrations were crude or reactionary. Visually they may seem so, but their political semantics, as a few websites have gone through the trouble of explaining at length in English, were specific and multi-layered. Dismissals of their simplicity or orientalism—as in Deborah Eisenberg’s labeling them “tasteless and brainless” in her letter to PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel—are usually a play to invoke the offense of “ordinary people” instead of those who gunned down the cartoonists (the Kouachi brothers) as the object of concern. It makes about as much sense as asking what the guy on the corner thought of The New Yorker’s infamous cover from 2008, depicting then-candidate Obama as an Islamist, giving a fist-bump to Michelle, dressed as an armed black militant. If the underlying claim here is that all forms of expression need to be legible to all types of people, then fringe resistance to empowered beliefs—which is what the staff of Charlie Hebdo and many others see the magazine as mounting—seems to be off the table.
The problem is that the PEN objectors are protesting mainly American policies and cultural prejudices—sometimes disguised as “Western”—and Charlie Hebdo gets taken along for the ride. (Eisenberg, for her part, drew a comparison with racist fraternities, and Prose mentioned that defending right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, doesn’t mean we should give them an award.) On the face of it, this makes sense, because the PEN organization is based in America. There is, however, a fatal flaw in this thinking, to which the many non-American writers who advance it are surprisingly un-attuned. The dissenters to the award object to PEN’s cultural and geographical chauvinism, but they do it on only narrowly “global” terms. While a cosmopolitan sensibility is one way of re-imagining PEN as a less provincial organization than it has historically been, it precludes other, more difficult sorts of transnational kinds of thinking. It is entirely possible to believe that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are anti-racist, and nonetheless serve as bad PR for France, or even for PEN, when they’re released into the wider world. It is likewise possible to believe that PEN has got it right, maybe even for the wrong reasons, in recognizing an act of national courage on a global stage, despite the organization’s spotty history of often limp and unexamined human rights campaigning.
What is really being asked is whether a “global” sensibility necessarily trumps a national one. The radicalism of Charlie’s French leftist founders, like its cartoons, is by default grounded in the nation state, a framework that is all but obsolete to many of the writers who signed the letter to PEN (including the “Afropolitans” among them, who I myself study and teach). But where does one anchor a radical, satirical project, or even attitude, without it? Much of the most salient, internationalist radicalism—whatever its fate—of the past hundred years has been inter- rather than trans-statist in its objectives. Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah’s ideas on “The United States of Africa” is one good example, and “national roads to socialism” might be another. My point is that the nation and the world both accomplish and refer to different things, and in many ways, the nation remains a more effective political platform. Comparing the PEN dissenters and Charlie Hebdo is like comparing drawing room conversations about “the woman question” in 19th-century novels to the policy-specific satire of Jonathan Swift. Charlie Hebdo’s opposition means naming names; Francine Prose’s means being offended by the idea of offense. (And Christiane Taubira, France’s Minister of Justice who’s been reduced to “the monkey cartoon” despite defending it, has been a name often offensively overlooked.) This doesn’t mean that all projects carried out under the rubric of the nation are good, as the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists would have been the first to affirm. It does mean that the taut line connecting left to right is often illegible outside of a national context, and that this is often a strength, not a weakness, of a political opposition.
Even within the French national context, of course, Charlie Hebdo has been criticized for some of its cartoons satirizing Islam. Accordingly one version of the anti-PEN position holds that it is the duty of people with power to act with sensitivity toward those who have less. Thus, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, as white secular Frenchmen and women, ought not to satirize disenfranchised French Muslims. While this argument has merit, it is difficult not to see it as invoking two much more slippery issues: the idea that “ordinary” Muslims’ can serve as a metonym for fundamentalist ire, and the relationship between a fringe publication and a broad public. The PEN dissenters’ understanding of power dynamics relies on a claim about relations between groups. But is it really defensible to claim concern with Charlie Hebdo’s relation to all Muslims? Why not only French Muslims, or French minorities, or, for that matter, French minority intellectuals? As the frame narrows, the commentary by people like Mabanckou or former SOS Racisme President Dominique Sopo all seems to point in one direction: Charlie Hebdo was on the right side, by any metric that questions rather than merely refocuses global hegemony.
In sum, Prose, Cole, Carey, et al. believe that power is dependent on context, a position we might short-hand as “equal-opportunity satire is not possible, because the world is not equal-opportunity.” These writers make the demand to redress or at least broach the issue of inequality, moreover, as one of the projects of representation—a distinctly literary rabbit hole that writers should be equipped to maneuver around more nimbly. Instead, they end up arguing for a standard of cultural and religious sensitivity viewed from space, rather than the risks, and occasional misfires, of political opposition on the ground. A radical relationship to power doesn’t come through invoking large spectral groups (“Muslims today”), but rather through attention to where one is operating, and at what time (this France, right here). And even within that space, adopting a meaningful position requires that we subdivide into more complex questions of targets, hits and misses. It doesn’t mean that we broaden out into the sanitized end result of an international audience.
What the other half—my half—of the literary public is up in arms about is a disingenuous recourse to individual taste and conscience, of both the anti-PEN signatories and the global-minded subjects on whose behalf they speak. Theirs is a quintessentially “liberal” move, and not in the strong sense. Until any of us can do better than the weak tea of cosmo-conscientious objection, writers and intellectuals especially would be well advised to defy rather than defer to the smug distaste for punching—up, down, or sideways—on exhibit among our literary elite. Can satire as pointed as Charlie Hebdo’s ever be global? The answer is no, and it is this problem that might make for a truly timely novel, or even just a letter to PEN, if our writers were up to the task.